Why Your Dog Eats Poop (and How to Get Them to Stop)

Why Your Dog Eats Poop (and How to Get Them to Stop)
Photo: Kittibowornphatnon, Shutterstock

In the animal kingdom, eating poop is a common occurrence that happens on a spectrum. Bunny rabbits, for instance, have to eat some of their poop. It’s a natural part of their digestive process, and while we bunny people are fewer and less represented in media than our dog- or cat-loving counterparts, we have no choice but to look away respectfully as this revolting spectacle plays out. Dog owners, on the other hand, have pets that do not need to eat their own waste, but sometimes do it anyway. If you have a dog, you’ve probably seen your pooch do this from time to time and been alarmed, too.

It’s totally normal for your dog to participate in shit-eating — the classier word for which is coprophagia — but you are forgiven if you’re desperate for it to stop. Here’s why it happens and what you can do about it.

Why do dogs eat poop?

The good news here is that if you’re wondering why your dog is eating poop, you’re far from alone. Forums are full of people asking this question and animal-focused organisations like the American Kennel Club and PetMD have weighed in, too.

There have even been studies done. A study presented at the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour’s annual conference in 2012 found that 16% of dogs are “serious” poop-eaters who were caught doing it five times, while 24% could be seen doing it at least once. The study noted that poop-eating was more common in multi-dog homes, and females are more likely to do it, while un-neutered male dogs are least likely. Watch out for poop-eating among greedy dogs who steal food off tables, too, according to the study.

The University of California’s Dr. Benjamin Hart, who led the study, wrote, “Our conclusion is that eating of fresh stools is a reflection of an innate predisposition of ancestral canids living in nature that protects pack members from intestinal parasites present in faeces that could occasionally be dropped in the den/rest area.”

Lorraine Rhoads, an environmental biologist for Dogtopia, told Lifehacker that vets have been looking into this for a long time and “some believe this behaviour may be related to the canine pack behaviour of grooming and cleaning newborn puppies, including their faeces, to keep the den area clean.” Dogs’ ancestral history as scavengers and the fact that modern dog food is quite nutritious may play a role, too, she said: “It makes sense to the dog’s mind that the high-quality food also means high-quality waste.”

Per PetMD, other reasons your dog may be dabbling in coprophagia include:

  • Your dog is nursing.
  • They like the taste of other animals’ poop.
  • They want your attention.
  • They’re sick.
  • They’re anxious.
  • They’re afraid of being punished for an accident.

Those top two reasons — your dog is nursing or straight-up likes the taste of another species’ waste — are not concerning. A nursing dog may eat her young’s excrement to keep them clean and an animal that likes the taste, well, just likes it.

The other four reasons are a little bit more concerning. Coprophagia can be associated with intestinal tract diseases or even ones that impact other parts of the body, like the liver or brain. If your dog starts losing weight around the time the poop-eating kicks into high gear or otherwise acts unusual, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. The AKC notes that a dog eating its own droppings is pretty harmless, but issues can arise if your dog is eating another animal’s waste, so be especially vigilant if your dog lives around other types of animals.

Fortunately, the AKC also notes that while this behaviour is really common in puppies, it has a tendency to stop before they hit nine months old.

How can you get your dog to stop eating poop?

Figure out why your dog is doing this, to the best of your ability. The AKC says isolation, restrictive confinement, anxiety, or an inappropriate association with real food could be environmental factors that trigger this behaviour. Those issues have solutions. Don’t keep your dog confined in a small kennel or away from people if you suspect isolation is the cause. Don’t use harsh methods of punishment during house training if you suspect it’s anxiety. An inappropriate association with real food can come into play if you feed your dog too close to their poop.

Beyond identifying the root cause, you can take a few more steps to stop the poop-eating. The AKC recommends trying a dog multivitamin to make sure your furry friend has a well-rounded diet and is getting all the nutrients they need.

There are even chews, tablets, and supplements designed to deter your dog from eating their waste by making their poop unappealing to them. Try a bad-tasting spray, too, which you can spritz on anything you don’t want your pup to nibble — including faeces. If you feed your dog good food, don’t think too much about what your dog is ingesting beyond the tablets, though. Rhoads said, “Diet does not appear to be a factor in whether a dog will engage in coprophagy, unless they are malnourished or being fed a low-quality diet.”

Pills and sprays are good and all, but you also have to work with your dog on this. Take them on well-supervised walks, keep their area clean, and put extra effort into training time when you go over “leave it,” “drop it,” or “come.” Teach your dog to come to you for a treat as soon as they defecate so they develop the habit of walking away from the mess. If this doesn’t work, make sure to keep them on a leash and firmly lead them away from the poop every time they relieve themselves. It goes without saying, but pick the poop up. If it’s not there on the ground, they can’t eat it. Hart’s 2012 study found that 92% of dogs who eat poop want it fresh, but your dog could be in that tiny percentage that is down to consume poop that is older than two days. Just clean it up.

Rhoads agreed, noting “the most important thing” you can do is clean up right away. She also suggested seeking the help of a dog trainer if you need it.

When working with a puppy, don’t ever let the poop-eating feel like a game. Don’t chase them or react strongly. Be calm and unimpressed, so they don’t start to associate poop-eating with extra attention from you.

Finally, break your dog’s two big daily meals into smaller, more frequent ones. The less time a dog spends hungry or bored, the less inclined they may be to snarf up some shit.

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